After a year unlike any other in the Wubble, the W is back and poised for a historic 25th season that will reach more fans than ever.
The 2021 WNBA season is here. Tipping off Friday when the New York Liberty host the Indiana Fever in Brooklyn, the 25th year of America’s longest-running women’s pro sports league is positioned to be the most impactful one yet.
In 1997, the rallying cry was “We Got Next.” Today, with renewed strength and unprecedented reach, that dream is realized.
Last year brought us a season unlike any other, with the women of the W dedicating their efforts on and off the court to social justice causes, continuing a long-standing tradition of utilizing their platform for change. Now, the WNBA is back after a tremendous season in the bubble. And in the few short months since the Seattle Storm claimed their fourth championship crown, a whole lot has occurred off the court to set the stage for a new era.
As a result, if you had wondered about whether it’s time to bet on women, that question has been absolutely settled.
That simple phrase — bet on women — is emblazoned on the website headshots of the WNBA’s players union leadership. From President Nneka Ogwumike of the Los Angeles Sparks to the Atlanta Dream’s Elizabeth Williams, each WNBPA leader carries this message in order to make it unavoidable.
And their efforts to build the sport through key investments from high-profile partners has not gone unrewarded.
In 2020, the league launched the Changemaker partnership program as a platform for revamping business, marketing, and fan experiences across the WNBA. Last week, Google became the most recent Changemaker, joining AT&T, Deloitte, and Nike.
Together, the industry giants will support increased broadcast exposure while providing key resources to support women’s sports and the causes of racial, gender, and LGBTQ+ equality.
As a result of these partnerships, WNBA fans will have more chances than ever before to catch broadcasts of their favorite teams. Google will serve as the presenting sponsor for key league events, from the WNBA Playoffs to ongoing activations on ESPN, including a SportsCenter segment and several “30 for 30” documentary films.
“During CBA negotiations, the players made investing and revamping the W’s business model with new broadcast and digital partners a specific point of emphasis, so to see Google now is tremendously encouraging,” WNBPA Executive Director Terri Jackson told Boardroom. “This deal should have a positive impact on our new revenue sharing arrangement and could open an opportunity for Google to work directly with the players through the WNBPA.”
Google isn’t the only Big Tech name helping the WNBA reach more fans this season, however. On Wednesday, Amazon announced plans to stream 16 regular season games on Prime Video, as well as the final of the inaugural Commissioner’s Cup, an in-season competition with a prize pool of $500,000 for the team that ultimately emerges victorious on August 12.
And with so many stars coming back following a year of opt-outs, you can expect that the highlight reels that are about to come out of these national TV games will be fire.
The hotly anticipated return of a number of big names is one of the best reasons to get excited for the new season. New York Liberty phenom Sabrina Ionescu is back after a season-ending ankle injury in 2020. Two-time league MVP Elena Delle Donne returns after her battle with Lyme disease led her to take enhanced COVID precautions. She’ll be joined by Washington Mystics teammate Natasha Cloud, who was heavily involved with the social justice movement last year and took the streets with fellow activists carrying a “Together We Stand” banner.
And then there’s Renee Montgomery, player-turned-co-owner with the Atlanta Dream. She played a lead role in ousting Kelly Loeffler from the Dream’s ownership suite (and the US Senate), making her one of the foremost members of an amazing group of women in the W committed to never settling for less.
Montgomery has already overseen some big wins, including locking in the first all-Black, all-female WNBA broadcast team and inking the Black women-owned Pop’N Creative agency to a brand marketing partnership focused on empowerment and social justice.
“My biggest motivation was being able to create positive change on a large scale. I know that to get more representation, you have to look towards the people hiring. Becoming a part owner and Vice President of the Atlanta Dream allows us to empower women and minorities through job opportunities,” Montgomery told Boardroom. “I knew my heart was pulling me towards the community, and once I sat and thought about my [playing] career, I was satisfied with what I had done and what I gave, which was my all.”
With the platform afforded to a franchise equity partner, Montgomery’s voice stands to be more influential than it’s ever been in the months and years to come.
There is a feeling that this WNBA season is poised for new breakthroughs — and each team will look fresh while doing so. Nike, an inaugural Changemaker, executed a complete design overhaul of the uniforms for all 12 teams in partnership with current and former WNBA players.
The three sets are “Heroine,” “Explore,” and “Rebel” (spell it out: H-E-R), which run similar to the NBA’s design patterns. The Heroine uniforms are in home white like the NBA’s “Association” set, while Explorer features team colors. Inspired by female empowerment themes, Rebel offers a unique spin on each team’s design, much like the NBA’s super-popular City Edition kits.
“I think one of the biggest impacts that we have seen from the Changemakers program has been in the excitement around the new jerseys by Nike. Teams have carved their own identities and fans are able to feel even more connected to us,” Atlanta Dream guard Elizabeth Williams told Boardroom. “This translates to the larger business world because people can see when effort and investment is put into new and creative ideas, conversations are started, and we see more engagement from fans and consumers. I love the new design of our ATL Rebel jersey. It has unique colors that are special to our city and has such a clean design. I think besides us, Indiana has the best Rebel jersey. The Stranger Things theme is hard to top creatively!”
“Player leadership was consulted and gave considerable feedback on the 25th anniversary gear — specifically the social justice-themed warmups,” Terri Jackson said. “We will cross our fingers and hope that Nike will release the warmup for our fans. We know these matters are important to them, and W fans believe deeply in supporting the players’ agenda.”
A whole lot of preparation, investment, and sacrifice led to Friday’s tip-off of this momentous WNBA season. Fans are in for a historic quest for the crown, and though the campaign ahead will be long and unpredictable, there’s more proof than ever before that betting on women is just about the safest bet on the board.
It’s time to retire “We Got Next.” For the WNBA in 2021, it’s all about now.